Dear NYU Shanghai,
When I look back at all the hard work put into Ally Week preparations this year, I feel extremely proud of the Committee, the Ambassadors, and the Student Life team. We all poured a lot of our personal time into planning these events and campaigns, and I couldn’t be more grateful for all the support we’ve received. I’m especially excited at the upcoming launch of the new Allyship Lounge on the 6th floor. It is going to serve as a refreshingly dynamic space for us to continue the cross-cultural, interactive, and challenging conversations we began during this year’s Ally Week.
As one of the three co-chairs of this year’s efforts, I’d like to take some time to address some concerns that several members of the student body have expressed surrounding an event hosted during this year’s Ally Week called “Dear White People: A Conversation on Racial Privilege.” The event, which took place on Wednesday November 8th, consisted of a panel of students from many different racial backgrounds, with the intention to challenge all of us to confront racial privilege, white supremacy, colorism and racism, in several cultural contexts.
After examining the rationale of these (mostly) students for a few weeks, I believe I’ve come to understand the logic behind their feelings of discomfort and their perception of being targeted by the title of the event. I’d like to use this response to these students to pose my counter-argument and explain why they may want to reconsider their position. All I ask of them is that they at least consider my perspective, as I’ve truly worked to understand theirs, and have considered their arguments with respect. I also want to state at the onset of this piece that I sincerely believe the students in question do not harbor any ill will or malicious intent in their beliefs, but are just (in my view) misguided.
The title of our “Dear White People” event was based on a popular television comedy series on Netflix of the same name, which itself was based on a 2014 film. I’m not suggesting our choice to name the event after the series wasn’t influenced in part by its provocativeness. We knew the title would be attention-grabbing–that’s exactly the sort of thing you want, when promoting an event that will depend on audience participation. But it nevertheless evoked a negative response among some, and has been criticized as appearing too confrontational or aggressive towards white students and faculty. As can sometimes happen in social justice-oriented efforts, there seemed to be a general perception that our intention in naming the event this way was to pose some kind of attack against white students and faculty, or somehow weaponize “political correctness” to serve a deliberately anti-white agenda. Obviously, this couldn’t have been further from the truth–but let’s break down why it was interpreted that way.
The students in question weren’t questioning the existence of white privilege. Instead, they were troubled by the fact that the name of the event addresses them directly as white people. In a sense, it’s not hard to see why that may spark some discomfort; white people, and especially Americans, are in most contexts used to being referred to as simply “people.” This was actually a point brought up in our discussion. One aspect of white privilege is the benefit of occupying this position as the ‘default’ race of person that comes up when considering groups of people writ large. In other words, when white people are viewed in the popular imagination as the “norm,” anyone who falls outside of that notion is by definition abnormal, atypical, or outside of this designation as an average person. This can have very serious repercussions for a person of color in many instances throughout their life, particularly in situations that depend on in-person impressions, such as applying for jobs or dating.
But being called white shouldn’t make white people upset. And it shouldn’t put them on the defensive. If you are white, and it does upset you, I’d like to ask you to take a moment or two to reflect on a few things. Firstly, why does it upset you? Consider the influences in your life that may have lead to the reaction you’re having. Secondly, how do you think people of color might, in general, feel about being called by their respective racial designations? How have those designations differed historically in impact and social connotation from the designation of ‘white?’ What political decisions have been made to influence the meanings of those designations? Which designations hold social capital and control, and in what contexts? Following these questions, consider: who have the real targets of racially-based discomfort been, both throughout history and in contemporary social circles?
One student attested that the Ally Week team’s decision actually contributed to racial tension on campus, stating “…by alienating this one race you’re creating an even greater divide between white people and other racial groups” (as quoted by OCA, emphasis mine). This is more of the well-intentioned, but misguided “color-blind” rhetorical approach to racism that has gained traction in recent years. When faced with evidence of racism in society, rather than critically examine the institutions put in place to reinforce unequal treatment, or discuss the social force of whiteness and its effects on society, the “colorblind” approach instead posits that we should simply act as though all people are exactly the same, racially speaking (and, in doing so, disregard the unequal playing field that has been constructed around us). The trouble with this position is that, while looking great on paper, most people sharing this sentiment don’t follow this view along the next logical steps it presents. Remember–culturally, the “default” in society is white. By saying you don’t “see” color, what you’re really advocating for, at the end of the day, is cultural and racial assimilation into whiteness. Choosing not to “see” color invalidates the identities of non-white individuals and asks them to invalidate these identities themselves, as well. Again, while I don’t deny that the “colorblind” attitude comes from the right intentions, it falls short in that overlooks an absolutely crucial point: we don’t all need to be the same to deserve respect and equal treatment.
One aspect of the students’ position that I found particularly difficult to understand was the conclusion that many white students came to, which was simply not to attend the event as a form of protest against its title. Please understand that I’m not being pedantic here; I truly would like one of the white students who was of this mindset to help me to understand them. What message, exactly were they trying to get across in not voicing their opinions at the event itself? And why did they decide that not attending would be the most effective method of sending that message?
From my perspective, in choosing not attend the event, and avoiding the discussion altogether, those students demonstrated that they are able to live their lives comfortably outside the scope of the issue. They effectively said, “I don’t need to have discussions like these.” As a result, they actually did a lot to damage the argument that they were being targeted by events such as the “Dear White People” discussion. Many people of color and members of marginalized groups are proactive in their sponsorship, hosting, and participation in these kinds of events because engaging in these discussions contribute to the betterment of their circumstances as individuals, as well as the circumstances of academia and their workplaces. Choosing not speak up at all would do nothing but perpetuate those unfair circumstances, rather than challenging them. What I therefore find difficult to understand is why some of my white colleagues would choose both to opt out of the discussion and also turn around and claim that they are under attack, and were not given the opportunity to defend their position.
In point of fact, events like those hosted during Ally Week are a perfect place for students of all races to express their concerns. But that doesn’t have to end with Ally Week; NYUSH, and college campuses in general, benefit from fostering challenging discussions. This is exactly why I am so excited at the prospect of the new Allyship Lounge space, and keen to advocate for its potential as a hub of social discourse and communication for our community. If you feel you are being targeted because of your identity, that is the exact kind of concern that we want students to bring to this new open space, and to report in Diversity Initiatives surveys such as the “Being@NYU” Assessment, which is still open until December 15th.
To those who still may be skeptical about just how actually open-minded “politically correct” events like the Dear White People event are, I will say this: plenty of white people attended that event. I was one of them. There was a white person on the panel. In the entire discussion, not a single white person was “called out,” ridiculed, made to feel ashamed of their heritage, or condemned individually. Instead, what transpired was what I found to be a very thought-provoking and compelling discussion of the social capital of whiteness, in the context of many nations. It was exactly what it aimed to be: a frank presentation, explanation, and discussion about the workings of white privilege in today’s economies, politics, and social sphere. Those who attended participated in a lively exchange of experiences, questions, lamentations, and frustrations, on many sides–and I genuinely felt that at the end of the session I understood my peers more fully.
I want to be clear that this piece isn’t meant to make anyone feel guilty. I also hope I’m not coming across with an air of “look at me, I’m so Cosmopolitan.” I’m interested in listening to all perspectives, provided that they are based in facts, because they help me to arrive at well-informed conclusions that are shaped by the most data. This is just my own opinion, but in general I think the best scholarship and political consciousness is achieved by engaging with ideas that challenge or even directly oppose your own, because not only does it help you to solidify the reasoning behind your own beliefs, but it also helps you to get better at recognizing flawed arguments.
But I don’t deserve a pat on the back or a gold star for engaging critically with my identity, and neither does any white person. These conversations are, in all honesty, the bare minimum that we all should be doing to understand how to utilize our various privileges to make our societies, from our nations to our schools to our households to our minds, more fair. I have yet to come across an argument that has been sufficient to convince me to dismiss my white privilege, or any of my other privileges. That being said, I do understand the hesitation that comes with wrestling with these issues. I do. Educating yourself on these kinds of hard truths is never an easy road to travel. (That’s why we put extra effort into making Ally Week events dynamic and fun.) It’s a long process, that we will never truly be finished with. And no one is denying that none of us chose to be born into the historical and political circumstances that we find ourselves in.
But we have all made one important decision that unites us: we chose to be here, now, at NYU Shanghai. We are global scholars, like it or not–and as such, we do share a moral obligation to understand each other. If you aren’t interested in living in an interconnected, multinational, multicultural, multi-gender, multiracial world, I have some bad news for you: you already do.
It’s high time we all talked to each other. I hope students and faculty will take advantage of the new Allyship Lounge space to do so. It won’t be easy, but if we work together, we can approach these conversations with mutual respect and seek to understand, rather than confront. And in the future, events like those sponsored during Ally Week are truly ideal opportunities to share your story.
So, on behalf of the 2017 Ally Week Committee, welcome.
This article was written by Luc Riesbeck. Please send an email to email@example.com to get in touch.
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